News from the Archive

Tony Soprano: Dead or Alive?

June 10th, 2017

Tony Soprano is dead. To paraphrase Monty Python, Tony’s passed on, he’s no more. He’s bereft of life, he rests in peace. He is an ex-person! I’ve come to understand this, but it was not the conclusion I reached on the evening of June 10, 2007, when the final episode of The Sopranos first aired. That night, I had no idea what to think. I’d been building up this finale in my head for months, years even. A couple of friends I watched it with were disgusted, and seemed to feel almost betrayed by David Chase. I wondered if maybe they were right. Something nagged at me, though, that the final scene might benefit from a second viewing.

About 300 viewings of that scene later, my feelings have changed. For the unaware, The Sopranos came to an end in a restaurant called Holston’s in Bloomfield, New Jersey. It seemed to be somewhat of an innocuous scene, but there was a sense of rising tension as Meadow Soprano attempted to parallel park, and a man who appeared to be sizing up Tony went into the restroom. Just as Meadow was about to enter the restaurant, there was one final shot of Tony, and the screen went blank, and thousands of people reached for the phones to give their cable company hell for this inopportune “outage.”

In my panic that evening, I texted a friend who was best friends with one of the principal writers. His comment? “Perfect. Nothing more to say.” I later came to find out that his friend had been in the editing room with David Chase, helping him to convey what Chase wanted to convey, and had actually told my friend exactly what that was. I later pleaded with him to tell me. He finally looked me in the eye and said, “Omerta.” 

I began to realize that there was more to that scene than my little viewing party and I thought the next day when I checked the late, lamented Television Without Pity message boards. An astute poster noticed a very distinct pattern in the editing. After Tony settles in, there’s a shot of Tony’s face, a bell rings, Tony looks up, and we see his point of view. At the first bell, a woman who resembles Tony’s sister comes in. Second bell is a guy in a baseball cap who I always thought looked like Robert Patrick. Third bell is Carmela Soprano. Fourth bell is a man who strongly resembles the actor who played Tony’s father in flashbacks, wearing a Members Only jacket, and Tony’s son, AJ. Each time: Tony’s face, we hear a bell, Tony looks up, we see a person coming in the door through Tony’s POV. 

As Meadow attempts to park, and the Soprano family makes small talk, we see the man in the Members Only jacket (the same brand of jacket worn by Eugene Pontecorvo in the season six premiere) looking over at Tony. Tony appears not to notice him. After a small discussion of AJ’s new career, and more shots of Meadow parking, Member’s Only guy enters the men’s room. As Meadow rushes toward the door, we get a shot of Tony, a bell rings, Tony looks up and once again we see Tony’s POV… which is nothing (represented by the blank screen) because Members Only guy has shot Tony in the back of the head. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls - in this case, it tolls for Tony.

I can’t imagine why Chase would edit the scene that way if Tony’s death wasn’t meant to have been implied. There are many events leading up to the finale that inform the final scene, and Tony’s fate, but let’s just focus on the strongest two. Take a look at this scene with Tony and Bobby Bacala. Bobby discusses how precarious the life of a mobster is, and he comments, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, you know?” Tony never hears it, and neither do we. As if that weren’t enough, this point is further driven home in this scene where Gerry Torciano is whacked. The scene is shot in a very specific way. It switches to slow motion, and we see Silvio Dante get splattered with blood while he’s still talking. We hear the gunshot on the soundtrack AFTER the bullet hits Gerry and Silvio gets spattered. David Chase himself has said that the murder of Gerry Torciano is key to understanding the final scene of the series. Again, the bullet kills Tony before he hears it, and we don’t hear it because we’re placed in his POV as we had been 4 other times previously in the scene. 

There are dozens of clues in the final season, and in the whole series that led me to me to my conclusion. There are several references to John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln in the course of the show, and they are ramped up in the final season. Kennedy, Lincoln, and Tony share a similar fate. In fact, there is a scene late in season five where Fran Felstein (Polly Bergen) sings Happy Birthday to Tony a la Marilyn Monroe to JFK, and she places a cap once owned by John F. Kennedy directly on Tony’s head.

On November 17, 1968 there was an infamous incident on NBC. A tense, important Oakland Raiders/New York Jets game was broken away from by the network in order to start the premiere of the made-for-television movie Heidi. Two touchdowns happened in the final minute of the game, and sports fans everywhere were angry.

There are several references to the New York Jets in the final season of The Sopranos. Including this seemingly inexplicable cameo by Jets manager Eric Mangini in the second to last episode of the series. Was this David Chase’s way of cluing us in that another Heidi Game was afoot? The moment the television goes blank in the last moment of The Sopranos would be like NBC cutting off that crucial Jets/Raiders game in 1968. Not buying it? The third to last episode of The Sopranos is titled, “Kennedy and Heidi.”

Again, there are literally hundreds of pieces of evidence to consider. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the part where Adriana La Cerva was reincarnated as a cat! Series finales are hard. Ask Larry David. And the day after The Sopranos finale aired many thought that David Chase had turned in one of the worst series finales ever. But since that day, upon analysis and reflection, its reputation has grown. The more time goes on, the more layers reveal themselves to us. Someone will point something out in a YouTube video comments section, and it will lead you to discover yet another piece of the puzzle on your own. The Sopranos finale is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

- John Dalton

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Remembering Rita Riggs

June 8th, 2017
Rita Riggs

We’re sad to learn that costume designer Rita Riggs passed away on Monday, June 5, 2017 at the age of 86. Riggs worked at CBS early in her career in the costume department of shows like Climax!, Shower of Stars, and the classic anthology series Playhouse 90. She also worked at Revue Studios with Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and later on Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. Riggs is perhaps best known for working on Norman Lear's shows throughout the 1970s - she did costume design for All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, One Day at A Time, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and The Jeffersons. She also worked on the feature films Seconds, Petulia, and Yes, Giorgio.  

Below are some excerpts from her 2003 Archive interview: 

On working on All in the Family:

You would work with the producers in the beginning on days that you would read at the table and then, of course, the director would take over in blocking. You read at the table one day, the second day was actors' day, they could play around with the script. Third day would be a run through for writers, producers, everybody. Thursday, let’s say the fourth day, would be blocking day on camera, choreographing the photographer - the cinematographers. And then you would tape two shows on this day and those two shows had to be cut together to get the best of both. And therefore, we developed a way of matching things because you could not go in the middle of a long run of a monologues or a scene if a color flipped up. So we developed little tricks. Everybody would kind of lightly tack down collars. We would train actors on blocking things. Ties would be stuck down so that they wouldn’t flip out of a suit. If you had this up on the eight o’clock show and this for the five thirty, you could not cut them together. I have never forgotten one time, John Rich called me in the middle of the night and he was cutting together the two shows. And he said, “How could you let Jeannie get her apron on the wrong side out?” At which point, we made her aprons such that you couldn’t do that anymore. They were the same on both sides. 

On her philosophy of costuming:

You shouldn’t notice it. If you do, you probably haven’t done your job. Notice the performer and the overall picture.

On her source of inspiration:

History, I think because history always repeats itself….Through history there are certain elements that are either regal, peasant, elegant, gaudy, and you may pull some elements. How long have we been wearing feather boas? For the lady on the street, it comes from five thousand years ago probably. Those are all historical frames of references that can be used.

On advice to aspiring costume designers:

Wear comfortable shoes. Be strong, adorable, listen, learn, go to museums, learn from the masters. Painters are such good teachers. They teach you how to put together colors and textures.

Watch Rita Riggs' interview and read her obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.

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The Irony, Influence, and Impact of David Letterman

June 1st, 2017
David Letterman

For long-time David Letterman fans, Jason Zinoman’s new book “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” is both a revelation and the book we’d been waiting many years to see. People are finally getting their due for having helped create Late Night with David Letterman, the most important and influential talk show of the last 35 years, in my opinion. Among them director Hal Gurnee, who’d worked with Jack Paar and was able to seamlessly blend the traditional talk show setting with Letterman’s irony and deconstructionism. And head writer Merrill Markoe, whose comedic sensibilities shaped the early years of Late Night, and who was at least 50% responsible for what the show was, and, I would argue, for the state of modern comedy. Fred Silverman talked to us about bringing David Letterman to NBC. Second time was the charm.

Those who first tuned in to Late Night on February 1, 1982 expecting to see yet another talk show in the mold of The Tonight Show must have been confused at best to see a strange man (we didn’t know Larry “Bud” Melman yet) introduce the show with a speech that combined Alfred Hitchcock’s television introductions with something Dr. Frankenstein might say. This strange display was followed by showgirls strutting around the studio with NBC peacock headdresses. Watching it today, it’s obviously a parody of late ‘70s variety show excess, but in 1982 I’m not at all sure how much of the audience was in on the joke. Another big departure was the band. Instead of a Doc Severinsen big band, there was SNL’s Paul Shaffer heading up a traditional 4-piece rock and roll band. 

Late Night with David Letterman was the anti-talk show. Letterman and Merrill Markoe had no interest in doing it the traditional way, so a clash with the mainstream seemed inevitable. This came to pass in 1986, when David Letterman agreed to host the 38th Annual Emmy Awards

In the weeks leading up to that Emmy broadcast, Dave seemed to regret agreeing to host. There were stories in the paper of his being uncooperative when asked to do a big production number with Emmys co-host Shelley Long. He addressed these stories on air by simply stating, “I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I don’t like to be near anybody who does.” Leading up to the broadcast, Letterman’s on-air grousing reached a fever pitch with him mock-rehearsing one of his intros: “Ladies and Gentleman, the first lady of television, Miss Lucille Ball” to which Paul Shaffer replied, putting on Lucy’s gruff voice, “Thank you, David! You know Desi and I did so many shows together, and I love the work you kids are doing…” Every other talk show had always shown reverence to Lucille Ball and other television living legends, while Dave could be downright hostile to them. And now he was about to host an event that relied on his being reverential and respectful.

The evening of the Emmys, David Letterman could not have looked less comfortable on stage next to Shelley Long. Dave proceeded to deconstruct the awards show just as he’d done on his talk show for the past four years. “Children’s television programming: Where would our young people be without it? Perhaps out in the fresh air, getting some exercise.” 

In those years, all Awards shows did huge production numbers, and during Shelley’s, it became apparent why Dave declined to partake – it was a medley of love songs, which included “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” from the musical "Carnival," and Ashford and Simpson’s “Solid as a Rock.” Sandra Bernhard would later do a brief but memorable parody on Late Night. I've been fulsome in my praise of Shelley Long on Cheers in this very space, she's an absolutely brilliant actress, but this was not her venue.

Letterman sparred with Milton Berle, whom he introduced as, “Milton ‘I’ve got ties older than you, Berle.” Berle responded in kind, “You were never funnier… and it’s a SHAME, too, I’ll tell ya THAT!” The contrast in comedic styles couldn’t have been more stark. Later, Jack Paar appeared to present a writing award, and as Johnny Carson had a few nights prior when Dave guested on The Tonight Show, gave his stamp of approval to his, “good friend and neighbor David Letterman.” Letterman and his staff won that award, and while accepting, Dave addressed Brandon Tartikoff, “Don’t worry, by God, we’re not going to be in third place for much longer.”

The evening closed that year with a big production number led by The Golden Girls singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friend,” and followed several “old friends,” including Sammy Davis, Jr., Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Dick Van Dyke, Eve Arden, Dick Clark, Raymond Burr, Bert Parks, Jackie Cooper, and in the very last seconds, George Burns. Absolutely thrilling for me to watch even today, and one of the great moments in Emmy history. Letterman’s comment on the whole affair? “Our long national nightmare is finally over.”

In last year's 68th Primetime Emmy Awards there were no big production numbers, and no musical numbers at all. Host Jimmy Kimmel’s ironic, detached style of humor is a direct descendant of what David Letterman was doing in the ‘80s. All Awards shows now incorporate at least some of the style and attitude of Late Night with David Letterman. And in the years following his hosting stint, Letterman became more mainstream, and more willing to play nice with others. It worked out nicely for all involved. 

Once again, I recommend Jason Zinoman’s “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” highly. It’s like “Hamlet” meets “Citizen Kane” meets Larry Sanders. Also, if you’re a Letterman fan, take a look at Don Giller’s YouTube channel. It is a vault of great Letterman bits both from NBC and CBS.

And for more great awards show and talk show stories and analysis, check out our talk show page!

- John Dalton

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Life Before Mrs. Garrett

May 31st, 2017
Charlotte Rae

Charlotte Rae became a household name playing Mrs. Garrett, first on Diff’rent Strokes and then for seven years on The Facts of Life. But long before that she was a well-respected character actress on some of TVs most memorable shows. It was our pleasure to sit with Charlotte for a few hours one day last Fall and hear the stories of her long and illustrious career.

The Early Years 

Charlotte got an early start in acting, joining the North Shore Children’s Theater as a teenager. She then went to college at Northwestern University to study drama. Her classmates included Cloris Leachman, Paul Lynde, Agnes Nixon, Charlton Heston and songwriter Sheldon Harnick, who went on to write music and lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof. She honed her craft doing comedy sketches with Paul Lynde in the Waa-Mu show, a Chicago precursor to Second City.

After college she moved to New York City where she got an agent and began doing off-Broadway (Three Penny Opera), Broadway (Li’l Abner) and live TV. In this clip below she talks about a mishap during a live broadcast while filming an episode of Appointment with Adventure.

The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54

In no time at all Charlotte was a regular on TV with appearances on Armstrong Circle Theatre, Ponds Theater, NBC Television Opera Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Ed Sullivan Show, and more.

She was cast on two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show where she met Nat Hiken who would give the actress her big TV break as a recurring role in the hit series Car 54, Where Are You?. She credits Hiken’s genius with making the show a success and for matching her up with her on-camera husband Al Lewis, who played Leo Schnauser to her Sylvia. 

Commercial Work

While these early works were popular at the time and certainly garnered Charlotte a lot of attention, it was perhaps her ‘70s commercials that made her recognizable to average Americans. There was the commercial for Oil Heat where Charlotte was showering while proclaiming her love for the dependable, hot water. In another she had her head in the oven and stated, “Mr. Muscle, you’re a good man to wake up to.” But maybe the most memorable was her stint as the grocery shopper buying toilet paper who couldn’t help but squeeze the Charmin. In this clip from our interview, she recalls that campaign.

The Mid-‘70s

In the mid-‘70s Charlotte had two of our favorite TV roles of her career. In 1975, she played Mrs. Bellotti on the short-lived and incredibly under-rated Hot L Baltimore — a Norman Lear classic way ahead of its time with a cast including a gay couple, two prostitutes and a black revolutionary. She was the mother of an off-beat son, who was never seen, yet her vivid descriptions of his antics brought his off-screen shenanigans to life — from buttering the walls of the hotel hallway to training circus fleas in his room (demonstrated by a gesture of a little teeny, tiny whip).

One year earlier she appeared on All in the Family, in an episode that focused on Edith. While Archie was away, Edith threw a Tupperware party. Charlotte played Lilian Henderson, the Tupperware lady. Edith was so anxious about her speech, nervously practicing her opening remarks, “We welcome you with open arms!” But when Lilian was there in front of her, the words didn’t come out quite right. Hear Charlotte tell the story in this clip.

Mrs. Garrett 

Just a few years later Charlotte got another call from Norman Lear, this time to play a housekeeper on a new show about a rich Manhattan businessman who adopted three black children. By the end of the first season of Diff'rent Strokes, Mrs. Garrett was such a hit, that the network spun her off onto her own show featuring a few young actresses who would stay with her for the next seven years on The Facts of Life. While she has continued to act since the show went off the air, it is Mrs. Garrett that is etched in the memories of America’s TV viewers.

Watch Charlotte Rae's full Archive interview.

- Pop Culture Passionistas

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Ellen Comes out: "The Puppy Episode" Turns 20!

April 30th, 2017
Ellen

TV Land ranked it as the only television episode to garner a 10/10 in historical significance, and it came in at #21 on their list of Top 100 Sitcom Episodes of All Time. TV Guide listed it at #35 of The 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time. "The Puppy Episode" of Ellen, in which lead character Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen DeGeneres, comes out as a lesbian, first aired on April 30, 1997 on ABC. It was the first network TV sitcom to have an openly gay lead character.

Prior to Ellen, broadcast television had dabbled in storylines about homosexuality. The 1972 ABC Movie of the Week That Certain Summer focused on the relationship between partners Doug Salter (Hal Holbrook) and Gary McClain (Martin Sheen) and was the first television movie to bring a homosexual relationship to the forefront. Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas on the 1977 series Soap was openly gay, yet a supporting character. 1981's Love, Sidney featured Tony Randall playing Sidney Shorr, a gay man living with friend Laurie and her daughter, but the series avoided mention of Sidney's personal life and largely only hinted at his sexual orientation. With "The Puppy Episode," Ellen Morgan became the first broadcast, prime-time, sitcom character to openly discuss her homosexuality, and also have it woven into subsequent storylines in the show.

There was quite a build-up in the weeks leading up to the hour-long episode, which coincided with DeGeneres' real-life revelation about her own sexuality. Oprah Winfrey guest-starred on the show as Ellen's therapist, Laura Dern as Ellen's crush Susan, and Steven Eckholdt as Ellen's college buddy, Richard.

"The Puppy Episode" aired in Season 4 and took some effort to get on the air. In the summer of 1996, DeGeneres told Disney Executive Dean Valentine that she wanted her character to come out:

According to Disney Exec Michael Eisner, he, too had a conversation with DeGeneres, and shares his take on the episode and remainder of the series:

Valentine explains the production process on "The Puppy Episode" once the decision was made to have Ellen Morgan come out:

Ellen lasted for one more season after "The Puppy Episode" aired, ending in 1998. DeGeneres began hosting talk-show Ellen: The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2003, which is syndicated nationally and still going strong. Sometimes Oprah appears as a guest on that show, too.

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